Crisis Mapping Security

Answer to Matthew Levinger

This blog post has been edited after clarification on the role of TechChange and on their position expressed in the comment below. 

On Wednesday, October 26, 2011 Matthew Levinger posted a blog post titled “Risk Management and Ethics in Conflict Mapping” on the TechChange website. I have been reading that blog post for 2 days now, and I would like to share with mister Levinger and some comments that that blog post raised into my mind. I apologize in advance if this blog post will not sound nice, but I know a lot of the people that work at TechChange and some of their Advisory Board members, and I know that they all appreciate honesty and a open dialogue on such sensitive topics like Ethics and Crisis Mapping.

Mr. Levinger raised in his blog post some very interesting and thoughtful thoughts about what are the main issue in the crisis mapping field, but let’s proceed with order.

The second paragraph of Mr. Levinger said:

“Two years ago this month, the first International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM) was held at John Carroll University in Cleveland. Next month, the third ICCM will convene in Geneva, Switzerland, as the annual gathering of a volunteer network with 2,900 members from 137 countries. TechChange, which was established just last year, has over 3,000 members on its listserv.”

I apologize with Mr. Levinger if I am misunderstanding, but if I didn’t know that Mr. Levinger was an adult, I would imagine that he is playing the part of “TechChange got more subscriber than you guys have in a third of the time”. Unfortunately Mr. Levinger does not realized that having people subscribing to receive weekly updates on the courses or news offered by TechChange is not exactly the same thing than having 2900 PROFESSIONALS having an open forum to exchange information, sharing content and discuss actual issues, including in the imediate aftermath of an emergency. It is called two ways communication system, or interactive system. The Crisis Mappers Network is not a listserv, dear Mr. Levinger, it is a forum, a network for interaction, and it is a place that is not about how many people interact or receive the emails, it about the quality of the interaction in between those people. I personally think it is super cool that you have 3000 people on your listserv Mr. Levinger, but I think you do not need to compare TechChange to the Crisis Mappers Network, since they are not a two way communication system, they are advertising their products. It is just a bit different.

To continue on Mr. Levinger blog post:

“As GIS and other place-based technologies continue their exponential rate of advance, the need for sustained dialogue between the producers and the consumers of data from volunteer GIS-based and other participatory mapping projects becomes ever more urgent. The producers of this data are predominantly experts in information and communication technologies, whereas the consumers of the data include international humanitarian responders, officials from governments and international organizations, members of advocacy groups, and residents of communities afflicted by natural disasters or political crises. Miscommunication and cultural disconnects can easily arise among these diverse stakeholder groups, with negative effects on the outcomes of participatory mapping projects.”

There are 2 big mistakes in this paragraph:

1. Producers and consumers of crisis mapping systems are already having a dialogue Mr. Levinger. In fact, since Haiti, lots of things have been happening in this field, and this dialogue is getting bigger and broader. One of the place where this dialogue is happening is, in fact, the Crisis Mapper list (remember?–> 2 ways-communication system?). The Standby Task Force for example, a producer of information, even have in its pool of volunteers people from OCHA, the Red Cross, NGOs, military, crisis managers, emergency response professionals. For shocking as this may sound, the dialogue is already happening Mr. Levinger. You are a bit late.

2. The producers of the data Mr. Levinger, are absolutely NOT predominantly experts in information and communication technologies. You are clearly not getting this very straight, to be honest: there are also experts in information and communication technologies in the pool of volunteers that have been working on crisis mapping projects, but the majority of them are coming from completely different fields. Actually they are not at all experts, they are housewives, engineers, mothers, students, journalists, teachers. I invite you to look at the 600 and more volunteers that the Standby Task Force has deployed in the last year and you will see that probably 10% is actually an expert in experts in information and communication technologies.

And now let’s go the most interesting part of this blog post, the questions rised about Ethics of Crisis Mapping. Let me try to give some answers to those questions.

  • Are the producers or recipients of data from these projects exposed to security risks or other potential adverse consequences, including threats to privacy.

Security has been The topic, for the past 8 months, since the Arab spring and even before, and to be honest, we are vomiting constantly security blog posts, advices, guides, briefs and so on about it. Lots need to be done, but for example, the Standby Task Force have been designing security protocols for each emergency, including when supporting Sudanese activists in demonstrating against the regime. I have personally worked in Egypt under Mubarak and done a crisis mapping project there. So the answer to your question is YES, we are all expose and we all know what the potential consequences are.

The problem that you are trying to generalize here is in fact very much linked to something else. The problem is not the body of volunteers that networks like the Crisis Mapping one or the Standby Task Force are deploying in crisis situation, the problems are people that have not been trained and that do not know what and how to deal with certain issues. And you know how do you solve this problem Mr. Levinger? By providing FREE training material and information, by sharing lessons learned (like the Libya and Colombia report) , by engaging people in discussion about this and offering them free support when they set up a crisis map. Because to tell you something shocking: we may keep discussing about problems and what needs to be known to do a crisis mapping project, but people will keep doing it anyway. We cannot prevent people from doing it, so if we want to solve the problem we have to share the knowledge and make sure people understand what they are doing. Of course, if only people that have 895$ can have acces to this knowledge, then we will always have to deal with people that do not know what they are doing.

  • What negative effects may result from false or distorted reporting? For example, after the Haiti earthquake, many reports of victims trapped inside collapsed buildings were posted by people seeking help for digging out the corpses of family members who had been buried in the rubble.

This is way, Mr. Levinger, the Standby Task Force has been setting up verification protocols and teams to deal with this (see the verification protocols for Libya and a simple verification slide presentation for the volunteers to use) . Now, again, this discussion have been happening for at least one year, and to make a long story short: there are multiple negative effects that can arose from this. Now that we know it, what? I tell you what: we stop wasting time in telling to each other that “O MY GODDDD…what is going to happen?????” and we start discussing about what are things that can be done to prevent this from happening, how do we implement use more robust protocols, what is working on the ground and what didn’t. To show an example of how this can be done here.

  • Does the establishment of a crowdsourcing platform for crisis mapping create unwarranted expectations that there will be a timely response to reports by people in need? Some observers have suggested that creating an Ushahidi platform for a disaster zone is akin to establishing a 911 telephone line without giving the dispatchers any emergency response capability.

Mr. Levinger, I would suggest that you sit down if you are reading this, since I may just be about to give you a VERY SHOCKING news. U ready? Have some water close to you in case you faint? Ok then: in humanitarian response YOU ARE ALWAYS CREATING EXPECTATIONS THAT YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO MEET. Now, to explain what I am saying here I invite you to go to any refugee camp on the world and ask to any of the refugees there if their expectation have been met when they get there. I have been visiting quite a lot of refugee camps, and working in emergencies, and I can tell you, the answer will always be, that the entire humanitarian world is creating expectations that they are not able to meet. And this is because most of the times the expectations that affected communities have are way over the actual capacity of the humanitarians responding. This is what the reality is today and how it will most likely be for some time.

But to come back to the crisis mapping projects: to be honest, the only place where I have seen the risk of this happening was Haiti, 2 years ago, Again, that was one of the first situation where crowdsourcing methodology was applied to a crisis mapping experiment in a massive humanitarian emergency, and to be honest, a lot was done to prevent affected population to think that an immediate response was going to come – for example by doing radio programs that were explaining how the system was working.

The issue of managing expectation have been dealt since then in a lot of different ways, like for example in the PakReport instance where people were informed via SMS about what the project was about; or in the Libya platform were the goal of the platform was clearly stated in the home page, or in the Alabama deployment. The Standby Task Force is using banners in each of its deployment to tell people what they can expect or not, and other crisis mapping projects are using banners in an increasing way.

Now again, to cut a long story short: there will always be expectations that are not met and this is valid more on the ground that it is on a virtual crisis mapping project. The difference is that crisis mapping project engage actually in communicating with disaster affected communities, which most humanitarian do not do. See this interesting report about Dadaab to know more about it.

The first issue here is not that any crisis mapping project is creating expectations of immediate delivery of aid, the issue here is that that aid is not arriving anyway, but if there is a way to display it in a clear way, then the humanitarians working on the ground are held accountable of what they are actually not providing – despite the millions of dollars invested in humanitarian aid.

The second issue is that, we should stop considering affected communities as a bunch of retarded idiots. If you tell them, they understand: they do not become immediately retarded because they are affected by a war or a disaster. The real way to solve issues with expectation is to have clear and broad communications channels with affected communities, not to avoid doing any crisis mapping project.

  • What are the ethical implications of creating universal surveillance systems that compile streams of data from diverse sources?

This is a good question Mr. Levinger. But why is Crisis Mapping a “universal surveillance systems that compile streams of data from diverse sources”?? Who has ever talked about a universal surveillance system? I mean, we do not need crisis Mapping to do this this is already existing, it is called intelligence and you should know better one of the most universal one, that HAS TONS of ethical component is the US one, where you serve as Intelligence Analyst.

  • In the context of violent conflicts and other political crises, how can parties to the conflict be prevented from using crowd-sourcing platforms to spread disinformation or incite violence, e.g. by exaggerating the number of victims or falsely accusing their opponents of war crimes or mass atrocities?

Mr. Levinger I would like to write the answer to this to you here, but this blog post is becoming very long, so I will just give you some blog post links that you can read to get some answers to your questions. But to give you a hint: WE DON’T. We can set up good security and verification systems, and we build trusted networks on the ground. But the bad people will always have access to those information, as everyone else does. Anyway, read some good info from my good friend Patrick Meier:

Why Dictators love the web

Information Forensics

Wag the Dog

“These ethical and logistical questions need to be effectively addressed as part of an operational plan prior to an intervention. While getting the hard data is important, we also have to remember that our goal is providing aid and support to the people affected by conflict.”

U are right, and since you are sooo concerned, you are offering courses to teach people how to do this for only 895$..of course in the interest of affected popultions!!

Mr. Levinger. I know this blog is snappy, but now I will be let you understand something that I consider very important and I am not doing it in the interest of making a mess or trash you. Please, next time you write about those topics keep in mind:

– You need to know very well what you are talking about. You have been mentioning very interesting issues in your blogpost, but you have been addressing them poorly, and mainly because you have never done a Crisis Mapping project before, and you are not involved in the field since long time.

– CrisisMapping it is actually about doing things, not reading/writing papers. As far as I know, you do not have ANY experience in managing any Crisis Mapping project or a crowdsourcing system to communicate with disaster affected communities. It is scarring that you are giving trainings to others on something that you have never done. Installing a Ushahidi platform in a computer or volunteer a couple of hours a week on a Crisis Mapping project it is not enough to give lessons on how to manage, set up and create a Crisis Mapping project.

I really hope you will be at ICCM, since I would like to continue this conversation and maybe start discussing actual answers and not repeating questions that have been asked too many times.

Now, since this was almost a Crisis Mapping class, I will be sitting here waiting for you to send me my 895$ check. Of course, for the sake of affected populations!!!


  1. Anahi, Many thanks for your blog post response (we’d love to post on our blog as well). Please know that TechChange as an organization doesn’t necessarily support the views expressed by authors that publish on our blog – we’re invested in critical dialogue and learning and our aim is to post lots of content from lots of sources that incites dialogue. In fact we agree with many of your points and assertions, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing the work we’re doing. So please don’t assume that we agree with the views expressed by authors and Mr. Levinger has no formal relationship with our organization. We are also working closely with a number of your Ushahidi colleagues and others who have practical on-the ground experience to conduct our trainings and design our curriculum and we’d love to add you to the team as someone who is a fantastic thinker and do-er in this space. Thanks, Nick (TechChange)

  2. Hey Nick,
    I have been editing the blog post after this clarification and I appreciate the fact that, after this blog post came out, you have been adding a disclaimer message in the TechChange page.
    Thanks for the clarifications.


  3. Dear Ms. Ayala Iacucci,

    Thanks for your thoughtful critique of my blog post on “Risk Management and Ethics in Crisis Mapping.” I appreciate the opportunity to respond to the concerns that you raised.

    At the outset, I would like to clarify that I have no formal affiliation with TechChange (apart from once having made a presentation in one of their courses), and the views that I expressed in the blog post are solely my own. Also, by no means did I intend to equate the TechChange email distribution list with the robust and vibrant Crisis Mappers Network. I have tremendous admiration for the work of this global network, including the role that you personally have played in launching or helping advance initiatives such as the Standby Task Force, Swift River, FrontlineSMS for Radio Stations, the Health Map, and various Ushahidi instances on multiple continents.

    I recognize that the issues I raised in my blog post are not new, and that significant strides have already been made (e.g. the Humanitarian-FOSS Code of Conduct and the Standby Task Force Code of Conduct) in addressing the ethical concerns that I flagged, as well as the challenges of maintaining information security. I also know that a wide range of collaborative efforts exist between the volunteer & technical communities (V&TCs) that have mobilized mapping technologies and international humanitarian organizations. Nonetheless, I stand behind the central argument that I made in the blog post: “As GIS and other place-based technologies continue their exponential rate of advance, the need for sustained dialogue between the producers and the consumers of data from volunteer GIS-based and other participatory mapping projects becomes ever more urgent.”

    This point is emphasized repeatedly in the UN Foundation report Disaster Relief 2.0 (which has itself made a major contribution to advancing such dialogue across organizational lines). For example:

    For all the new capability in ICTs, the information revolution has not led to a fundamental rethinking of the methods of coordination and working during humanitarian operations… [There has been] no formal channel for [humanitarian responders and members of V&TCs] to engage in dialogue about the underlying problems of information management. The humanitarian system has few protocols, procedures, or policies governing the use of information generated by citizens through social media, and the V&TCs are still learning how best to support the work of information managers in the humanitarian system (pp. 10, 13).

    As the report stresses, the challenges of improving coordination among these diverse stakeholder groups are cultural as well as technical: “Connecting V&TCs into the international humanitarian system will require careful consideration not only of tools and practices but also of underlying beliefs, including how those beliefs align and how they conflict” (p. 43).

    I welcome the opportunity to continue this conversation with you and other members of the Crisis Mappers Network on these important issues.

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